The Trump administration announced on September 17 that it would be halting all U.S. business transactions with Chinese-owned social apps WeChat and TikTok starting in a mere two days. TikTok was also given a 45 day ultimatum, until November 12, for its Chinese parent company ByteDance Ltd. to sell the company to a US buyer.
All political matters aside, this recent debacle, and especially the subsequent backlash it has inspired from the general public, has made me think a lot about how ingrained social media platforms have become in our lives.
I should admit to you upfront that I do not have a TikTok. My rationale behind not taking part in the second-most downloaded app of the year (the first most downloaded app this year is Zoom; I’m not sure how I feel about that) is not an uncommon one: I grew concerned over how easily information and news were spreading to me. I worried about how overwhelming a force social media apps had become in shaping what I thought, what I cared about, and the type of person I am to become. In short, although I get flooded with news headlines on a daily basis, this inundation of the same type of information keeps me thirstful for the diverse, multifaceted perspectives that make the world around us non-flat.
It’s no surprise that social media has utterly transformed the way our generation communicates and interacts with those around us. There are obvious changes, such as how the efficiency of emails and direct messages has sharply intensified our desire for instant gratification, how the constant pressure to present our best selves online can lead to self esteem and image problems, or how people are ironically becoming more isolated by immersing themselves too much on these community-building platforms. But perhaps less discussed is how the structure of these apps themselves are transforming their users. For instance, the rise of Twitter challenged pre-conceived notions of two-way relationships, establishing the idea of following others, but also of them following you back.
After the company went public, Twitter began recommending content to users based on what its algorithm thought users would be interested in. This machine-intelligence-based recommendation system is also an integral part of more recently developed apps, such as Instagram or Youtube. As these algorithms become more assertive, users spend more time on the social media platforms that continually feed them information of interest, even if these interactions become less and less intimate, less human-based, less social, and more media. We may complain about this, but that doesn’t stop us from shamelessly returning to the comfort of these apps—heck, some of us even complain about social media on their very platforms. I know I have.
But TikTok has thoroughly redefined the realm of an algorithm-based social media experience. The focal centre of the app is not a feed of your friend’s posts, but rather a page simply titled “For You,” which features content you’ve previously interacted with in some way or another.
As John Herrman of the New York Times puts it: “Imagine a version of Facebook that was able to fill your feed before you’d friended a single person. That’s TikTok.”
The app also addresses the perennial problem many of us seem to have about what content we should post on these social media platforms. By recruiting users into communities through its hashtag groups, dance challenges, or list of popular songs, no longer does the budding influencer need to stress about building their own audience or fan base—TikTok encourages you to explore new groups and test your luck everywhere. Small audiences are easy to find, and large ones are just a tap away; the risks are low, and the potential payoffs are high.
The rapid development of TikTok and its other social media counterparts puts into question the primacy of our interpersonal connections and networks. When you share that photo on Facebook, you’re no longer just posting for your friends to meet your new dog—you’re molding your identity right before the eyes of the entire world; yes, that includes your friends, but also that special someone you won’t admit you like, your future potential employers, and of course, the thousands upon thousands of other users who share the media landscape with you.
Social media also drastically changes the societal landscape before us, which makes it all the more challenging to determine how we want to fit into the cogs of civilization. TikTok’s unapologetic embrace of its user-centric focus comes at a time when the modern labor force is expected not just to be able to keep up with the rapidity of unfaltering consumption levels, but also to maintain the facade of ethereal optimism that the marketing industry has managed for years. The stakes are higher than ever before, but don’t let it crack that glowing smile of yours—you’ll need it for your LinkedIn profile picture.
All this pressure is being placed on an age group that is notorious for struggling to define themselves, whether that be getting a grip of their friend circles, their academics, or their hormones.
While apps such as TikTok certainly encourage its users to broaden their social network to include communities they otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to, there’s also a disconcertingly ephemeral feature to these relationships: the lack of intimate interaction turns this into a game of quantity over quality. For all the wonderful people I met during college visits and connected with over social media, I can use one hand to count the number of people I still remotely keep in touch with. The hollow silence of all the group chats made after summer camps—where we promised to keep in touch forever and ever—speak similar volumes.
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And for all the amusement and knowledge one gains from social media, the undeniable influence its machine-learning algorithms have on how we think, act, and exist in this world concerns me for its potential implications on the kinds of people we are becoming. Although we may seem to be expanding our social circles, individuals are also becoming more isolated, both in how we may literally seclude ourselves rather than engaging in interpersonal interactions, but also in the sense that a lot of the information we digest becomes increasingly siloed towards our perceived interests.
I single TikTok not out of personal grudges or biases, but because I think its technological capabilities represent an inflection point in virtual networking and tech at large. TikTok represents a great paradox of our era: even if it claims its algorithms are more focused on the experience of the individual user, it’s undeniable that machine-learning has an overwhelming influence on who the individual user becomes. The question then becomes if social media’s focus on the “user” refers to the human, or if the “user” is actually just the algorithm that manipulates us behind the scenes.
The intention of social media is to connect a bustling world through shared passions and create a shared voice for communities, but today, it feels like these apps are becoming Tinders for users to swipe right or left (or up and down) on content they think will “match” who they are or who they want to be. Instead of using our self identity to create our world within social media, social media has now taken over to create our self identity. The question is no longer if we want to turn back: it’s if we are even capable of doing so.
Angela Wu is a Trinity sophomore. Her column "that's what she said" runs on alternate Tuesdays.